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After last season’s debacle in which the SEC only received two at-large bids – and no seeds higher than a No. 8 – the league looked it would be on the upswing this season. Preseason top five Kentucky, top-25 teams in Ole Miss, Tennessee, Missisippi State and threats in Vanderbilt, Florida, South Carolina, etc. Much improved, right? Eh, not so much. Kentucky rolled to a conference title, going 14-2, but Vanderbilt and Tennessee were the only other conferences team to finish better than 9-7 in the SEC. Florida, Mississippi and Mississippi State have a lot at stake in terms of at-large chances.
Favorite: Kentucky is the clear favorite heading into Nashville and the SEC Tournament. The Wildcats rolled to a 19-0 overall start and only lost two games all season, road contests to South Carolina and Tennessee. They are a lock for a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. Kentucky is efficient at both ends of the floor, and can score inside the arc as well as anyone. Defensively, they block shots and guard very well. Their only weaknesses are youth, lack of three-point shooting and turnover propensity. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are All-Americans and two of the most dominant players in the country, while Patrick Patterson is easily the best third option in the country. Eric Bledsoe is an overshadowed point guard.
Contenders: Vanderbilt played well throughout the season, finishing second to Kentucky in the conference. The Commodores nearly beat Kentucky in late February, but suffered a questionable home loss to South Carolina in the season finale. Vandy is outstanding offensively, shooting very accurately from two and three but also getting to the free-throw line. Defensively, they are efficient and guard the two. The ‘Dores are very balanced, with Jermaine Beal and John Jenkins providing the outside shooting, Jeffery Taylor scoring from the wing and A.J. Ogilvy anchoring the post. Tennessee is the only team in the country to defeat two No. 1 teams this season, as the Vols knocked off Kansas and Kentucky. They bounced back from the suspension of Tyler Smith and the midseason fiasco to be a top-four seed in the Big Dance. Tennessee is jumpstarted by its defense and forcing turnovers. The Vols also guard the three very closely. Offensively, Tennessee is adept at scoring twos and avoiding steals. Scotty Hopson and Wayne Chism are the lone double-figure scorers, meaning that Bobby Maze and J.P. Prince need to provide offensive support in the postseason.
Sleeper: I pegged Arkansas as an SEC sleeper back in November, and did it again in January when conference play rolled around. While neither of those picks really panned out, Arkansas has talent. Courtney Fortson is one of the most productive all-around point guards in the country, and Rotnei Clarke has unbelievable range. Marshawn Powell and Michael Washington provide inside balance. Georgia has been competitive all season, beating Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Illinois and Florida. Athletic guard Travis Leslie and double-double threat Trey Thompkins form a nice inside-outside tandem.
Prediction: There is much on the line in Nashville this week. Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee have locked up bids to the NCAA Tournament, although Vandy and UT are still gunning for top-four seeds. However, Florida, Mississippi and Mississippi State need to pick up wins to get to the Big Dance. Florida and Mississippi State are poised to face off in the quarterfinal – the winner could get a bid. Ole Miss needs to knock off Tennessee and get to the semifinals to have a chance. Interestingly enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if the SEC West went 0-6 in the tourney. In the championship, I think that Kentucky will knock off Vanderbilt in its home city.
No. 5E South Carolina over No. 4W Alabama
No. 3E Tennessee over No. 6W LSU
No. E4 Florida over No. 5W Auburn
No. 6E Georgia over No. 3W Arkansas
No. 1E Kentucky over No. 5E South Carolina
No. 3E Tennessee over No. 2W Mississippi
No. 4E Florida over No. 1W Mississippi State
No. 2E Vanderbilt over No. 6E Georgia
No. 1E Kentucky over No. 3E Tennessee
No. 2E Vanderbilt over No. 4E Florida
No. 1E Kentucky over No. 2E Vanderbilt